Hurtful resonance

Lead Review
Last Updated 31 July 2010, 13:35 IST
Hurtful resonance

Australian writer Christos Tsiolkas’ fourth novel The Slap opens with a barbecue at which are present around 30 representatives of suburban Melbourne. They range in age from toddler to  geriatric; in economic status from working class to the affluent business owner; there are first- and second-generation immigrants from Greece, India, the Balkans; white Australians, an aboriginal Muslim, a Jew; a young gay man. (Appearing elsewhere in the book to complete the multi-cultural round-up are a Vietnamese DVD pirate, a Lebanese paramour and an Arab.) The barbeque comes to an abrupt end when an obnoxiously behaved three year old is slapped by an unrelated adult. Depending on where they grew up and whether parenting had yet been invented, those present have differing ideas about just how barbaric it is to slap a child. They are forced to take sides when the aggrieved parents file a charge of assault, and a complex web of friendships and family ties is disrupted.

The Slap is an ingeniously structured book. The plot is linear, and is narrated
in the third person in eight chapters, each from the perspective of a different character.
The effect is that of a novel composed of connected novellas. This format allows Tsiolkas access to the internal and external worlds of very different characters while still driving a central narrative.

As point of view characters we have Manolis, Greek patriarch, increasingly out of place in a changing world; his studly son, Hector, a state employee in his forties; Hector’s wife Aisha, a veterinarian of Indian descent and mother of two; Aisha’s childhood friend Rosie, the smothering stay-at-home mother of the slapped child, and married to an alcoholic; Anouk, friend of Aisha and Rosie whose identity appears to be just “Jewish”, who writes soap operas for TV; Hector’s cousin Harry, a successful businessman, short-tempered and occasionally violent; Connie, an 18 year old who works in Aisha’s clinic, who is involved in an ambiguous physical relationship with Hector; and Richie, Connie’s best friend, and in the process of coming to terms with being gay.

Tsiolkas’ narrative structure is an inspired way to explore the diversity on hand, and the chapters on Manolis and Richie stand out as being particularly well-realised. But The Slap is on the whole let down by writing that lacks depth, with characters all too often resembling hammy actors. In the chapter from his point of view, Harry, a 40-something father, is first seen rubbing himself against a balcony wall, grinning: “Four young girls in thin strips of bikinis were showering in the park. They had pert adolescent tits, they were blonde and lithe.” He proceeds to dive into a pool and emerge for air, again grinning. He dives in again, rolls like a seal, stretches himself on the surface of the water and exults: “‘I am the king of the world!’ he shouted to the sky.”

Tsiolkas’ characters are over-represented by their weaknesses, compulsions and prejudices.

This makes for a novel filled with drugs, alcohol, violent sex and racist slurs. (Or ‘unflinching’, as the blurb will have it.) No character is allowed to escape with any aspect of her sex life undescribed. When the sex is not orifice-rending or involving a man who is a “jackhammer, slamming into her”, it turns soft-focus for contrast: “It was as if her body had been asleep for years and had suddenly awoken, refreshed but hungry.”

Relationships are minutely examined, but almost always through the lens of dysfunction. Even when we suspect there must be love somewhere in a relationship, or that a character must have some redeeming enthusiasms or ideals, Tsiolkas refuses to show it to us (with a few exceptions). The resulting bleakness that pervades the book may well be the effect Tsiolkas is aiming for, but it is undermined by the facile manner of its creation.

If the depiction of the main characters is lopsided, the peripheral ones are reduced to ciphers. Hector and Aisha, on vacation in Bali, are on their evening walks “largely ignored except for a shy smile from the young women, a polite grin from workmen and the pealing laughter of the old women and children.” This staginess continues when the couple have a fight in a restaurant and one of them begins to cry: “The French couples had fallen silent; the women were looking down at their menus, the men lit cigarettes and were looking deliberately over the bannister to the street below.”

By the time the couple goes to bed, they too have learnt the lock-step ways of the extras around them: “They rang reception to cancel breakfast, swallowed a Temazepan each with their final gulp of whisky, and . . . fell asleep.” Such lack of particularity ensures that the book is a brisk read, but it doesn’t allow for much engagement.

Still, The Slap does manage to convey some of the flavour of its messily diverse world and the issues arising from it. The novel has a powerful premise and narrative structure, and despite its other shortcomings these prove enough to propel one through it.
And for all the intervening bleakness, it ends on a convincingly hopeful note.

Hurtful resonance

The Slap
Christos Tsiolkas
2010, pp 485
Rs 450

(Published 31 July 2010, 13:35 IST)

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